Put simply, Green Growth is all about growing our economy in a sustainable, environmentally-friendly way, rather than growing our economy by exploiting our natural resources.
We all have a responsibility to protect the environment we live in, for current and future generations. As a keen hiker, I recognise the importance of our beautiful natural environment, and encourage everyone to go out and enjoy the big blue room. It is disappointing to see this environment exploited for the sake of economic growth. Don’t get me wrong; economic growth is vitally important to any country or business. However, there’s no reason why economic growth needs to be at odds with the environment.
We must find ways in which to pursue economic growth in a way that works with our environment and not against it. This can be achieved through education, government initiatives, business incentives, new technologies and other means. I believe the best way towards achieving green growth is through a combination of these techniques.
New Zealand is well placed to lead the world in sustainable practices – we just need to stop talking about it and take action! Green Growth is not important; it is essential.
What am I doing about it?
My background is in Computer Science and Electronic Engineering, and I’m currently a PhD student at the University of Waikato where I’m co-supervised by the Computer Science and Economics departments. Before you imagine someone with glasses who works at a computer in a university basement… wait; never mind, that is true. However, my research is not about computers. To quote Edsger Dijkstra; “Computer science is no more about computers than astronomy is about telescopes”.
My research focusses on ways to increase the efficiency of electricity consumption. My aim is to develop, apply and evaluate new technologies that help consumers to optimise their electricity consumption, and reduce their contribution to negative environmental impact. As well as tackling the technical side of things, I’ll investigate the economic issues as well – how can we motivate behaviour change? What financial incentives are needed, if any?
When it comes to electricity, New Zealand does reasonably well in terms of renewable generation, with 74% of all generation in 2010 coming from renewable sources [Ref]. “New Zealand – 74% Pure” has a great ring to it, no? There’s definitely room to improve here, but this is only the beginning.
Not Just About How Much
An electricity network operates in much the same way as an airport, road system or supermarket – they are all built to handle peaks in demand. By definition, this means that resources are under-utilised a large proportion of time – millions of dollars’ worth of highway are only fully utilised for an hour or two each day. In the same way, electricity infrastructure is built so you can cook up a roast, while also boiling a kettle and watching TV. Yet the power stations, transmission lines and transformers must still exist 24/7.
Peaks in demand are typically covered by very expensive and inefficient generators, powered by fossil fuels. Fortunately, consumers are shielded from high peak prices by energy retailers, who typically charge a flat rate regardless of when electricity is used. Unfortunately, this only provides consumers with an illusion of how electricity works and provides no motivation to shift consumption to off-peak.
Electricity meets Oil
New Zealand’s electricity generation may be 74% renewable, but only 38% of our total energy came from renewable sources in 2010. The reason for this is primarily our use of oil in the transport sector[Ref]. Traditionally, transport and electricity have been separate economies – not much electricity is generated from oil, and not many vehicles are electric. That is set to change in the near future though. Peak oil, rising costs and environmental concerns are all pushing towards alternative fuels for transport.
Electric vehicles will become much more common in the near future, and allow the vehicle to run on a range of different fuels – hydro, wind, geothermal and others. This is great, but charging them will be a major issue. If they are charged using a coal-fired power station, then we’re only shifting the pollution from the car’s tail pipe to that station’s chimney. Luckily, there is existing spare capacity in our electricity system that could be used for charging cars, provided that we do so intelligently. If everyone tried to charge their car at the same time (say, when arriving home from work), then we will have a serious problem.
The Human Factor
At the end of the day, appliances, cars and homes do not drive the demand for energy – people do. People are therefore a vital part of the system. But here lies the problem – few people understand the situation behind the power socket in the wall – most will simply plug something in, turn it on and expect it to work. And that’s fine – car drivers don’t need to understand how their engine works. They do need to know how to drive though, and cars provide the facilities to do so easily – accelerator, brakes, steering wheel, speedometer etc.
Consumers do not have tools they need to enable optimal use of electricity. You could say they are driving blind. Simple questions cannot be answered easily:
- How much electricity has the fridge used in the last week?
- Is it worth switching off all appliances at the wall?
- What’s the best time of day to wash clothes?
- Is my electricity use typical for my suburb?
- If I have a long shower now, what will the impact be on the environment, and my power bill?
“Renewable” Doesn’t Mean Zero Impact
Many people have the idea that renewable generation is an ideal solution to our growing demand. That is true to some extent, but even renewable generation has negative environmental impacts. Hydro dams flood rivers upstream; wind farms scar the landscape (although I think they look great!). Regardless of the generation type, they all need unsightly transmission lines across many kilometres of land.
A Potential Solution
The solution I’m working on comes in three parts:
- Measure To quote Lord Kelvin, “If you cannot measure it, you cannot improve it”. This part involves the direct measurement of every appliance in a home using inexpensive devices I’m developing that will look similar to electric timers.
- Inform Measurements are not useful if they can’t be quickly and easily understood. This part will communicate the state of electricity consumption, both up-to-the-minute as well as over the last week, month or year. It will also provide answers to the questions above, among others.
- Control This part allows the control of all appliances, either directly by the consumer, remotely (through a web browser or smart phone, by the consumer or potentially the local lines company), or automatically by the system – for example, switching off appliances that aren’t being used, or washing clothes in the early hours of the morning to use off-peak clean energy.
The system aims to lower peaks in demand, lower overall energy consumed, enable better integration of intermittent renewable generation such as wind or tidal, co-ordinate charging of electric vehicles, and encourage consumers to take a pro-active role in electricity conservation. Best of all, most of the savings from the use of this system will arise by increasing the efficiency of the electricity network as a whole – no subsidies or taxes required!
The current generation are being raised in a digital age, where things such as smart phones and the World Wide Web are fast becoming second nature. In the near future, managing electricity consumption will be as simple checking e-mail, and with the help of digital technology, all households and vehicles in the country will be as energy efficient as possible.